Submitted by Rabbi Arthur Waskow on
This week, we read the biblical story of a Priest who becomes a murderer in support of a murderous God -- and thereby turns them both around, calls his God and himself into peacemaking.
In our own generation, the passage has been cited as justification for zealous murders -- for example, the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin. So many peaceable folk of today respond, "Disgusting! One more good reason not to bother with Torah!"
But I see the story in a different light --- in which exactly Disgust inside the story turns both God and Priest from zealous murder to self-reflective making-peace.
In the ancient story, the spur to murderous rage is that two peoples meet. There is risk in their meeting. Perhaps there is also a possible blessing. But among at least one of the peoples, the leadership is frightened and forbids all contact.
But there is contact anyway. Some of it is literal, physical contact: sexual relationships. But there is danger: In each long-separated people, a lethal malady might have arisen and then genetically winnowed those most mortally susceptible, leaving the disease troublesome but rarely deadly in that community.
But that disease had never been known by the other people, and so was still lethal when boundaries between the two communities collapsed. So Reality Itself, the very Winds of Change, may bring on a plague of death.
In the ancient story, YHWH, the Breath of Life, the Hurricane of Change, blows on Its wings a plague, a pestilence. People begin to die -- thousands of them.
Is this just uncanny, a miracle? In a much more recent story, just 500 years ago, we hear of a canny, scientifically explicable, disaster that bears marks of similarity: When the age-old barriers of Ocean were torn apart in the 16th century, two cultures came together that had never met.
One theory is that the meeting brought about a “double plague”: measles decimated the Native Americans; syphilis, the Europeans.
Was this because their intimate connection was in itself a "sin"? Or was it because the rush of new connection outran the care necessary to make the connection holy?
And what if the plague is perhaps even worse than a viral or bacteriall disease? What if it is a plague of arrogance and dominance? -- on one side, cannons; on the other, spears. As we see in our own lives, governmental power ruthlessly applied for the private gain of wealth or power by those who already have great power can make even a plague of disease much worse.
When the Sea splits or ghetto walls fall, best make sure: As the boundaries dissolve that had been sharp and high between you, do not rush suddently to embrace. Make new kinds of boundaries -- fuzzy, tentative. Society-wide versions of sacred tzitzit -- conscious fuzzy fringes -- to mark the contact points. Take care!
But what if we fail to take sufficient care?
The Torah's story of Pinchas is one of our sharpest tests. The Israelites made friends with the people of Moab, joining with them sexually and celebrating their gods. God -- that is, Reality Itself -- sent a plague upon them. Our Name for this Reality is "YHWH." Pronounce it with no vowels and you get the sound of breath and wind, for YHWH is the Zealous Breath of Life, the Wind of Change, the Hurricane of Transformation.
The peoples met each other unprepared. The Wind of Change blew across their unprepared and unprotected boundaries, blowing into them a plague, a pestilence.
Then Pinchas, a priest and one of Aaron's sons, sees an Israelite and a Midianite having sex. In rage he flings his lance at them, transfixes and kills them both. The plague of violence ends the plague of sickness. And the Torah continues (Num. 25: 10-13):
"YHWH so-worded it through Moses, saying:
" Pinchas has turned back my hot wrath from upon the Children of Israel by expressing-zealously My zeal [b'kano et-kinati] amidst them. And so I did not finish off the Children of Israel in My zealotry [b'kinati].
" Therefore I say: Here! I give him my Covenant of Shalom; it shall be for him and his seed after him a covenant of priesthood forever, because of/ replacing [tachat] his zealotry for his God, through which he made-atonement for the Children of Israel. "
Many readers have taken this to mean that God was pleased with Pinchas the Murderer. But try reading God's words this way:
"In a blind rage, consumed with jealousy/zealotry, I began killing My people with the plague. Then Pinchas imitated Me: in his own blind and jealous rage, he turned his hand to killing.
"I saw his murder of the sexual couple with horror and disgust. His jealous/ zealous act shocked me into shame at what I Myself was doing. I said to him, 'I will stop, and you must stop!' That is why I stopped the plague; that is why I made with Pinchas my covenant of shalom/ peace."
In this reading, God does a turn-around, a "tshuvah." God grows. The God Who begins by bringing a plague upon the people ends by making a covenant of peace. The God Who is horrified by Pinchas also sees in Pinchas' face one facet of God's Own Face.
But if we mean by "God" not an white-bearded old man in the sky but rather the Breath of Life Whose Name we hear if we try to pronounce the "YHWH" with no vowels at all; if we mean that God Who is within us, among us, beyond us -- then what does it mean for that God to do tshuvah?
What do we mean when we say "God" brought on the plague and halted it, ordered a genocide and made a covenant of peace?
We mean that the deep processes of the universe, the Very Breath of Life Itself, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, God's Name that means "I Will Be Who I Will Be," the Name that is a spiral process of Becoming -- those processes themselves act in subterranean ways to bring on genocides and plagues, and also to call forth human intervention to prevent, to soften, and to heal them.
How do we do this? First our government refuses to reduce the heat-trapping gases that broil and boil our planet. The heat precepitates a hurricane of rain. A city drowns. Citzens who had voted for an oblivious government are struck with pity, compassion, even awe. They gather to rebuild the city and remake the laws.
Their gathering will be the common ceremony, the common task, we can weave onto the corners of our peoplehoods and species so as to create a Covenant of Peace.
To become true priests of the Breath of Life.